And so it has unraveled.
The Foreign Ministry’s summons of Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov on Monday to protest the egregious comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying that Hitler had “Jewish blood” marks the end of Israel’s effort to somehow stay above the Russian-Ukrainian fray.
Lavrov’s comments came in response to a question by an Italian radio interviewer about how he could call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a Nazi, when Zelensky himself is a Jew. In addition, Lavrov said, “For a long time now we’ve been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest antisemites are the Jews themselves.”
Regardless of Israel’s genuine interest in not wanting to antagonize Russia because this could boomerang against it in Syria, where the Russians hold sway and could cause Israel considerable damage, the daily horrors in Ukraine, moves in the international arena forcing nations to take sides, and words such as Lavrov’s have made it impossible for Israel to remain “neutral.”
Furthermore, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s interest in mediating the conflict – originally one of the reasons for not strongly condemning Russia – has led nowhere; Israel has neither leverage to use on the Russians, nor any security guarantees to give the Ukrainians that would render it a serious mediator.
Along with the summoning of the Russian ambassador, Bennett’s response to Lavrov’s words also signaled that Israel is sliding off the fence toward the Ukrainian side.
“I view with utmost severity the Russian foreign minister’s statement,” said Bennett. “His words are untrue and their intentions are wrong. The goal of such lies is to accuse the Jews themselves of the most awful crimes in history, which were perpetrated against them, and thereby absolve Israel’s enemies of responsibility.”
Bennett, who on Holocaust Remembrance Day last week declared in a speech at Yad Vashem that nothing can be compared to the Holocaust, said it was time to stop using the Holocaust as a political tool.
That Bennett was willing to publicly take the Russian foreign minister to task for his comments shows two things: just how bad he finds Lavrov’s words, and the distance he has traveled in the 10 weeks of the war. He has gone from condemning the war, but never mentioning the Russians by name, to now slamming the Russian foreign minister.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s comments were even harsher and less “diplomatic.” Lavrov’s remarks, he said, “are both an unforgivable and outrageous statement as well as a terrible historical error. Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust. The lowest level of racism against Jews is to accuse Jews themselves of antisemitism.”
This is just the latest chapter in the anatomy of a policy coming undone. That the policy has unraveled, however, does not mean that the concern that led to it in the first place does not continue to exist: wanting to maintain a harmonious relationship with Russia so that the deconfliction mechanism in place over Syria’s skies remains and keeps Russian and Israeli forces from accidentally clashing.
Israel continues to have a genuine interest in keeping Iran from creating a beachhead against it in Syria, and good relations with Russia help promote that interest. That interest still remains, even as Israel has moved off the fence.
As a result, Jerusalem still needs to be wary – in its legitimate anger over Lavrov’s comments and in its siding more and more openly with Ukraine – not to completely alienate Moscow, because Russia still has the ability, through its actions in Syria, to severely complicate matters for Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, as much of an interest as Israel has in not wanting to antagonize Russian President Vladimir Putin, it also has an equal interest in wanting to stand firmly with the democratic West and the “free world” in opposition to Putin’s war in Ukraine.
So what we have seen is a slow unraveling of the never tenable neutrality policy, an unraveling dictated by events on the ground.
From the beginning of the war, this policy was difficult to maintain. Even as Bennett tried to refrain from publicly criticizing Russia, and called upon his ministers to limit their public comments on the matter, Lapid, on the day the war broke out on February 24, said that Russia’s attack was a “serious violation of international order,” and one that Israel condemned.
As a warning, the Israeli ambassador to Russia was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to hear Russian justifications for the invasion.
While Israel offered humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians in the early stages of the war, Bennett pointedly avoided condemning Russia by name in statements he released. His justification was the precarious situation in Syria, concern about the well-being of Russian Jews, and a desire to remain in the eyes of the Russians an “honest broker” able to mediate the conflict.
In the early days of the war, Israel annoyed the US by not co-sponsoring a UN Security Council resolution that condemned Russia, though it voted with most of the rest of the world for the measure in the General Assembly. It also stayed out of the international sanctions effort, though it did not allow Russian oligarchs a way to use Israel to bypass the sanctions regime.
As the war continued, however, and as more and more horrors came to light, the different comments coming from the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office became increasingly noticeable. Lapid would directly denounce the Russians, while Bennett would continue to denounce the war in generic terms.
This came across most noticeably following the discovery of mass graves in Bucha after the Russian pullback from Kyiv at the beginning of April.
While Lapid termed what happened at Bucha “war crimes,” and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz who was visiting the Israeli field hospital in Ukraine spoke of a “cruel Russian invasion” and massacres and war crimes taking place around the country, Bennett condemned the massacre but didn’t mention Russia.
“We are horrified by the difficult pictures from Bucha and we strongly condemn this,” he said.
Another turning point came on April 7, when Israel voted in favor of suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Committee.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement following the vote accused Lapid of “an anti-Russian attack,” and added, “There is an effort to take advantage of the situation around Ukraine to distract the international community from one of the longest unresolved conflicts – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
The statement blasted Israel for “illegal occupation and creeping annexation,” and said it is “noteworthy” that “the longest occupation in the post-war world history is carried out with the tacit connivance of the leading Western countries and the actual support of the United States,”
That was a clear signal from Moscow of its displeasure. On the same day, in another sign of displeasure, one of Russia’s top officers in Syria, R. Adm. Oleg Zhuravlev, said the Syrians, using Russian weaponry, shot down a precision-guided missile fired from Israel.
Another signal of displeasure came a few days later when Putin sent a letter to Bennett calling Israel to hand over control to Russia of the Alexander Courtyard church compound in the Old City, which former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to give to the Russians as a goodwill gesture following the release of Naama Issachar from a Russian jail in 2020, but which the Jerusalem District Court blocked.
This was followed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz saying on April 20 that Israel would provide helmets and vests to civilian medical and rescue workers in Ukraine. Russia’s ambassador to Israel told Russian television that Moscow would “respond accordingly” to this if it was confirmed.
All the while, Putin’s conversations with Bennett have become less and less frequent. According to Putin’s office, he spoke by phone with Bennett six times, and met him once, from the beginning of the war on February 24 until March 23. They have not, according to the Russians, spoken since.
Now comes Lavrov’s comment, and Bennett and Lapid’s angry responses, and slowly – incident by incident – Jerusalem’s best-laid plans to somehow stay above the war between Russia and Ukraine have been undone.